It got pretty wild in Yosemite last week. A storm dumped several feet of snow in the High Country and several inches of rain on the Valley floor. Strong winds – that can level trees – forced many Aramark concession employees out of their white canvas cabins (for Wednesday night) and into hard-walled structures for safety.

The non-profit organization providing environmental education, Nature Bridge, vacated their students from their canvas cabins in Half Dome Village and relocated them to rooms at Yosemite Valley Lodge for safe shelter.

One resident reported that a supporting beam had split at a temporary shower house for Nature Bridge students in Half Dome Village – damage he believes occurred during the recent storm.

A broken beam in Half Dome Village. Photo: Courtesy of anonymous Aramark concession employee

No fatalities have been reported in Yosemite by the recent weather, and despite two men getting hopelessly lost earlier in the week up by North Dome, they made it out alive thanks to a skeleton crew working the search and rescue.

This is my third winter in Yosemite, and though I’ve moved away and come back several times since first residing here 1995 – I weathered the 1995/1996 government shutdown, and the flood of 1997, “the largest experienced in Yosemite by this generation,” writes the NPS – this is my home and community.

To help readers get an on-the-ground view, I’ve reached out to other locals to get their story. None of my contacts – and this goes for the concession operating in the park, Aramark, and national park staff – are authorized to speak to the media. This is a small community, especially in winter, where only a few hundred people stick it out through the coldest months of the year. No one wants to risk losing their job.

Times are tough enough for folks here, many of whom are on furlough from the federal government, laid off from concession due to slow business, or are working so few hours that they can barely afford to feed themselves.

Jan. 19, 2019: Unmanned gates on Highway 120 leading into Yosemite National Park. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

“Things were good up until the holiday, and then there was a complete drop of business,” an Aramark employee said. “I’ve worked for five full days since the New Year. I have less than $100 in my account. I keep Top Ramen and oatmeal in my bear box and don’t touch it unless I absolutely have to.”

The Impact on Concession Employees

Since the government shutdown started 31 days ago (at the time of reporting), “my stress level has definitely gone up,” the Aramark worker stated. “Here I am in my 40s. My future is not set. Money is dwindling. You show up to work and they send you home because management is not approved to give you hours.

“This morning I walked into this cold, dark office just to get two hours of show up pay. I literally walked into the office and I walked right back out … I love where I am, but don't like where I’m at. It’s so bad.”

Many assistant managers throughout the park got laid off. On Jan. 20, my contact showed up to his pre-shift meeting and was told how to file for government aid if he needed it.

Aramark recently sent out the following memo:

“Due to the ongoing government shutdown, business levels have decreased significantly. As a result, we are placing individuals on a temporary lay-off effective Jan. 11, 2019 … We encourage you to file for unemployment.”

Though struggling, this anonymous contact is better off than some. However, concession employees aren’t contracted for back pay. All non-essential government workers are on furlough. Essential workers have to show up and do their jobs, despite not receiving a paycheck.

The impact on NPS staff

“We’re ordered to work without pay,” a ranger who requested anonymity told me. “We’re required to work. I’m ok with that, as I’d rather be here working [and I know] we will get back paid.”

He explains that those with a mortgage, those who rely on a paycheck to pay it, are in big trouble.

“It’s pretty scary. It could go on for a while,” he added.

Words From the Ansel Adams Gallery

Writes Matt Adams, grandson of Ansel Adams and president of the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite Village, in the Washington Post on Jan. 18, 2019:

“The shutdown has had a small impact on us so far. Visitors can still enter the park, even if they find services reduced. The shutdown is having a far greater impact on the hundreds of Yosemite National Park Service employees and their families, on the contractors that need sign-offs on work done to be paid, on the primary concessionaire, which is laying people off. The shutdown compounds problems not helped by floods in April and fires in July and August that closed the park.”

The John Muir Trail is closed during the partial government shutdown. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

From the NPS:

“During the government shutdown, the following areas are closed:

“Mariposa Grove, Hetch Hetchy (Monday–Wednesday), Wawona and Hodgdon Meadow Campgrounds, Mist and John Muir Trails, and all snow play areas are closed due to human waste issues and lack of staffing.”

While hiking up to Cascade Falls recently, I passed fresh toilet paper. Then a drone flew overhead, which was a first for me. Drones are illegal to operate in Yosemite. (Check out more information about that.)

I spotted this drone flying overhead while climbing at Cascade Falls yesterday (Jan 19). It is illegal to fly drones in Yosemite. Photo Van Leuven

Earlier on Sunday, Jan. 20, visitors were lining up their cars one behind the other right in front of a “No Parking” sign even though fifty yards away there was a parking lot with ample spots.

Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019. Shutdown day 30. In typical fashion, weekend visitors lining their cars up next to a “no parking this side of street” sign. Photo: Courtesy of anonymous concession employee

Back at my cabin, it’s raining as I write this, and the winds are ripping at my cabin roof and rattling the front door. Rain and snow is expected through the night, with clear skies and temps in the mid-60s expected for at least the next week.

On the bright side, employees at the ski area are busy. The Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area is reporting the best snow conditions they’ve had in two years. “So much fresh snow!” they report.

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